No bootstraps here

I love Thomas Merton, and when this landed in my email yesterday via the Center for Contemplation and Action, I thought, “Yes–yes–this!” (And then I thought, “I need to make time to read some Merton…”)

It is a holy thing to acknowledge publicly those who came before us, and how they have influenced us. That’s the reason for Mother’s and Father’s Day, for one thing. And why we have acknowledgments pages in books. And a host of other things. There’s something built into our souls that wants to draw the connection points, to express gratitude. There’s also something cathartic about telling the stories of bad influences–traumas and abuses that had just as profound an impact as the positive ones. By processing the things that made us who we are, we better understand ourselves. And self-understanding feeds growth in holiness, because self-delusional holiness is how we get hypocrisy in religion.

Given how universal this compulsion to connect our present to our past, I’m often puzzled (and frustrated) that so many people remain attached to that American false god, “rugged individualism.” It’s so clear that no one has ever stood on his or her own or pulled one’s self up by his or her own bootstraps. For better or for worse, we are what those who came before made us–woven in with our own choices, to be sure. But always dependent on those who nurtured us and gave us our start in life, out of love and generosity. And also dependent on those who wounded us. And on the structures that shape our culture and society. We stand on the shoulders of others. Always. We know this is true at an individual level. And if there, then also at the societal and global level, too.